Mar 23, 2021| Alaska History & Culture
For Robert Miller, a finely crafted fur hat is more than just a warm head covering. Mitts are more than mere hand-warmers.
They are symbols of Miller’s native Tlingit culture, a piece of Tlingit art.
Miller, the owner of Sitka-based Sea Fur Sewing, makes fur hats, mitts, and other items that not only keep people warm but also give them a part of Tlingit culture.
Miller, a Sitka native, started his business when he decided he wanted to become closer to his Tlingit culture. As his interest grew, in 2013 Miller, an avid hunter, one day launched his boat off Sitka and he wound up diving into the icy waters to catch three sea otters. When he returned to dry land with his catch, he saw a fellow Alaskan skinning an otter.
A fish biologist by profession, Miller, was captivated by the idea of using otter skins and sealskins to create hats and mitts, and he decided he could create a business out of his efforts.
That encounter in the parking lot would be his first lesson in becoming skilled in using sea otter fur, which was the beginning of a life adventure in creating hats, mitts, coats, headbands, scarves, and even home décor in the Tlingit tradition.
According to his biography, Miller took the otters home, hung the pelts on nails in his garage and, researched tanning methods used by his Tlingit ancestors and went to work. After days of stitching, he had made a pair of mitts and took them to a local shop to see if they would buy them.
They did, and Sea Fur Sewing got its start.
His hats and mitts are each one-of-a-kinds but each made with the same attention to intricate detail that his Tlingit ancestors used. His furs are so popular that they are used by mushers in the grueling ultra-marathon Iditarod dog sledding race.
To understand the significance of Miller’s efforts in creating caps and mitts, you have to realize that Miller is self-taught. And while that wasn’t always easy, he has dedicated himself to teaching others his ancient craft. He said he has already taught nearly 100 people his art, but he himself had to start from scratch when he began his pursuit of hat and mitt making.
"I’d say the most difficult thing was learning,” he said. "I did it with zero help. There’s no literature out there. No one was teaching it. It’s been in our culture for 10,000 years, and I wanted to bring it back. That’s why I’m teaching it.”
Miller made that first mitt after he found an old Bonis Never-Stop-Sewing and taught himself the intricacies of installing the needle, threading the machine, and figured out how to power it using what he called "the gas pedals.”
Making matters more difficult was the fact that sea otter fur is thick at more than one million fur strands per square inch. That density is what makes the hats and mitts so warm. But it doesn’t make it easy to sew.
Still, after days of hard work, he came up with that pair of mitts.
Miller and Sea Fur Sewing have come a long way since that first pair of mitts. But in addition to the exacting work, Miller says the real key to making hats, mitts, and other furs is patience.
"Be patient,” he said. "You’re going to rip out a lot of thread, you have to make sure your lines are straight and you have to be patient. But don’t sell anything if it’s not right. If it’s not right, it’s not right.
"This is not a quick thing to learn. It takes a lot of practice and dedication and commitment.”
The Tlingit are a tribe indigenous to the United States and have owned Southeast Alaska for thousands of years. Much has been written about the tribe’s ancient history, but Miller found that very little has been written about how to create the hats and mitts that are part of that history. Only native Alaskans are allowed to hunt sea otters and other sea mammals.
"The most important thing to know is that it is legal for me to own sea otter fur,” he said. "Only native Alaskan can harvest it. I emphasize this because my product is legal to own in the USA. People don’t know that, and sometimes they’re scared.”
Miller, who said he wants to keep his business small, may very well lay claim to making the best fur hats in the world.
"Russians think they have the best caps in the world and that they own Alaska,” he said. "I don’t pay attention to them. I focus on my work and the people I’m teaching. But I dedicate one hundred percent of myself to each piece I make.”
So, forget the Russians. If you want a hat, a mitt, or other items that are not only warm but created by the hand of an exacting artist, check out Miller’s wares at Sea Fur Sewing.
"It’s more than making a whole lot of money,” he said. "Of course, everybody likes to make money. But it’s also about preserving part of our culture.”
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